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Wayne Collett; runner protested at Olympics

Wayne Collett (left) and Vince Matthews were barred for life after they would not face the flag. Wayne Collett (left) and Vince Matthews were barred for life after they would not face the flag. (Associated Press/File 1972)
By Frank Litsky
New York Times / March 20, 2010

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NEW YORK — Wayne Collett, a runner who won a silver medal for the United States in the 1972 Munich Olympics and who was then judged to have acted so disrespectfully during the medal ceremony that the International Olympic Committee barred him as a competitor for life, died Wednesday. He was 60 and lived in Los Angeles.

His death, at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, was caused by cancer, said Mark Dellims, the sports information director for the University of California, Los Angeles, where Mr. Collett had been a track and field star.

In 1972, Mr. Collett and his UCLA teammate John Smith were favored in the Olympic 400-meter dash. They advanced to the final along with Vince Matthews, another American. Matthews won the gold medal in 44.66 seconds, Mr. Collett finished second in 44.80, and Smith was injured early in the race and did not finish.

In the previous Olympics, in 1968 in Mexico City, the runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both African-American, staged a demonstration during a medal ceremony to protest treatment of blacks in the United States. Olympic officials feared a repetition in Munich.

There, as “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ was played, Matthews and Mr. Collett, also both African-American, did not face the flag.

They stood casually, hands on hips, their jackets unzipped. They chatted and fidgeted. When the anthem ended and they climbed off the stand, the crowd booed. Matthews twirled his medal, and Mr. Collett gave a black power salute.

The IOC called it a “disgusting display’’ and barred them.

Mr. Collett defended his actions many times. “I couldn’t stand there and sing the words, because I don’t believe they’re true,’’ he once said, adding, “I believe we have the potential to have a beautiful country, but I don’t think we do.’’

In 1992, he told the Los Angeles Times: “I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.’’

With Matthews and Mr. Collett barred and Smith injured, the United States was short-handed and withdrew from the 4x400-meter relay, in which it would have been a strong favorite.

After returning from Munich, Jim Bush, Mr. Collett’s coach at UCLA, defended him, telling Track & Field News, “I was disappointed in him and told him that to his face, but I love him just as much as before the Olympics.’’

He called Mr. Collett “the greatest athlete I ever coached.’’

At the 1972 US Olympic trials, Mr. Collett ran the fastest 400 time at sea level to that point.